No matter how good a leader you are, you can always improve.
The next time you enter a difficult conversation in the workplace, here are four leadership exercises you can try that will improve your communication skills and your ability to influence your team.
1. Softening the Blow
Delivering bad news to employees is tough. It’s even harder when you don’t agree with the message or decision you’re communicating—like telling a star performer that they’re being passed over for a promotion.
To make sure that the news lands more smoothly, preface your communication with an accusations audit. As a brief refresher, an accusations audit is a negotiation tool wherein you figure out the negative things the other person might say or think and confront them head-on. It’s a way to clear out the mental obstacles and dissolve the negatives before getting down to business.
I practice this technique all the time when I’m checking into a hotel. I’m about to make your day that much harder, I tell the clerk. You’re probably going to think I’m another needy traveler who expects you to cater to my every whim.
What’s going through their mind at this point? It’s probably racing. What is this guy going to tell me? Did he drive his car into the hotel? Does he have a dead body in his suitcase?
When it comes time to make my ask, it’s much better received: Would it be ridiculous if I asked you if I could check in early?
Not only are they going to let me check in early, but they’re also going to upgrade my suite.
2. Engaging an Employee by Asking Them How They’re Doing
Everyone asks everyone else how they’re doing.
But here’s a little secret: Nobody really cares how anyone else is doing, in case you hadn’t noticed.
Though people hear others ask them how they’re doing all the time, they rarely (if ever) hear it from someone who’s genuinely interested in their response. Which leads to a great leadership exercise: Ask your employees how they are doing and when they respond, use a label or mirror to get more information.
For example, your employee might say, I’m doing good. But their tone might indicate otherwise. Doing good? you might respond, using a mirror. Well, I’ve got a lot on my plate right now and this client is giving me a hard time, but I can’t complain. Using a label, you might then say, It sounds like you’ve been under the gun since you got here.
This exercise can exude genuine curiosity—which can help you form stronger relationships with your employees and, in turn, develop trust-based influence.
3. Practicing the Art of Saying No
We know that you’re the nicest person in the world. Even so, there are times when you need to say no. Maybe there are staffing issues or budgetary restraints. Whatever the case may be, and although you do want to encourage collaboration, sometimes decisions have to be made, and you need to put your foot down and execute.
To the other side, a no can be demoralizing. You need to understand the impact that word can have. You can make sure your noes land more smoothly by setting them up with Tactical Empathy.
The Black Swan Group teaches the four phases of no:
- It sounds like you’re in a tough spot. I’m sorry. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
What you’ve done here is used Tactical Empathy and labels to soften the no.
- I’m sorry. That just doesn’t work for me.
Here, you’re being a little more direct but still softening the no with sorry
- I understand your position, but how am I supposed to do that?
The third phase works great when you’re renegotiating your power bill or cell phone bill. Try this one when the person on the other side says something like, Our company policy states that we charge customers like you this much.
- I’m sorry. No.
Sometimes, people don’t get it. And you have to take it to the next level. The fourth and final phase is a succinct no. Deliver it gently.
Each of these noes is designed to be used in succession. Moving on to the next phase is predicated on how much pushback you get from the previous no.
The key point here is that there are four different ways to say no—and each needs to be used at the appropriate time.
4. Shutting the Front Door
Never forget that it’s not about you, it’s about them. Make sure you’re not the one who’s talking all the time.
Here, dynamic silence can be your friend. Keeping your mouth shut can go a long way toward helping you extract more information from your direct reports.
So stop talking, and maintain eye contact. Let the silence brew—until it becomes so uncomfortable that your employee will have no choice but to voluntarily give you more information.
Practice Makes Perfect—So Get Your Reps In
All of these skills can be practiced in low-stakes environments—like when you order a sandwich at the deli. That way, when you get into a difficult conversation with a direct report or a colleague or a peer, you’ll be ready.
It takes somewhere between 64 and 67 repetitions to develop a new habit. So try these skills out. By the end of three weeks, you should be close to the point that it becomes muscle memory.